Twitter: A new box-office oracle?

Want to know how “Clash of the Titans” will fare at the box office this weekend?

Check Twitter.

So say two Silicon Valley researchers who claim they have discovered a way to use the popular social media service to gauge real-time interest in movies and accurately predict how they will perform at the box office on opening weekend.

Sitaram Asur and Bernardo Huberman, two social computing scientists at HP Labs in Palo Alto, contend that computational formulas using Twitter feeds can predict with as much as 97.3% accuracy how a movie will perform in its first weekend of release.

That far surpasses the traditional survey-based “tracking” reports that studios have long relied upon to forecast movie ticket sales, or the popular online site Hollywood Stock Exchange that lets users wager on their box-office predictions with pretend money.

The computer models based on Twitter chatter could signal a Merlin-like tool for Hollywood, which has long struggled to come up with fail-safe ways to forecast how movies will do at the box office. Among other things, the research could help studios decide whether to make last-minute tweaks to advertising campaigns or scale back and cut their losses.

Although the studios can often predict some weekend takes within 10% of the actual total, their results can fall short on films that target kids or teen fanboys, or are outliers like the recent Oscar winner “The Blind Side.”

The researchers used the rate at which movies were mentioned in Twitter updates to predict first-weekend box-office returns; the sentiment of the tweets -- positive, neutral or negative -- also accurately predicted second weekend, they said.

The research comes as interest in how movies perform in the nearly $11-billion theater distribution market, once of concern only to Hollywood insiders, has become a national pastime. It also comes as two trading firms -- a Wall Street player and a Midwest upstart -- are trying to roll out futures exchanges that they say are designed to help studios hedge box-office performance.

Huberman said the research showed that Twitter could be tapped to predict the outcome of all sorts of things, including how well major new products would be received and the winners of major political races.

That could capture the elusive commercial potential of social media, the fact that services such as Twitter -- with their vast flow of real-time information -- have the power and reach to track people’s interests. Twitter, which has yet to demonstrate how it will translate its huge popularity into profits, will unveil a new advertising platform this month.

Tapping in

Hollywood has aggressively tapped social media as it becomes more important in influencing movie-going decisions.

“There’s a lot of science that goes into this stuff, even in redneck Hollywood,” said veteran Hollywood marketer Gordon Paddison.

Paddison released a report last fall from a study of how 4,000 moviegoers used online resources to make their ticket-buying decisions. He found that critics had little sway, but social media recommendations did.

Twitter and other services are more valuable to Hollywood in influencing sentiment than in predicting it, Paddison said. Twitter’s reach is also limited because its audience trends younger and hipper, and it doesn’t tap other groups that drive a film’s popularity.

“Are there enough hard-core Christians on Twitter to predict that the ‘Passion of the Christ’ will be a $400-million film?” Paddison asked. “If so, then studios would be highly interested.”

Studios spend millions on marketing research, including test screenings (where invited audiences are shown films often months before their premieres, then not only give the movies numerical scores but also discuss which scenes and characters they did and didn’t like) and telephone and online surveys.

The latter data, which are compiled and reported by several different firms, can give studios insight into what segments of an audience are interested in a given film, and a usually reliable estimate of how well the film may do in its premiere weekend.

Whether social media can deliver returns at the box office remains to be seen.

Patent pending

The HP Labs study analyzed nearly 3 million Twitter updates that mentioned 24 major releases -- including the likes of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Avatar” and “Twilight: New Moon” -- over the course of three months.

The researchers factored in the date of a movie’s release and the number of theaters where it was shown to predict opening-weekend box-office performance with 97.3% accuracy, they said.

They also developed a system to evaluate the sentiment of Twitter updates -- positive, neutral or negative -- to predict the following weekend’s returns with 94% accuracy.

For example, for the recent movie “Dear John,” the researchers’ Twitter-based methodology predicted it would garner $30.71 million at the box office on opening weekend, they said. It did $30.46 million.

And on the recent movie “The Crazies,” the methodology predicted $16.8 million on opening weekend, and it did $16.07 million.

The researchers are applying for a patent for the methodology they used. They say that they don’t have any plans yet to commercialize it but plan to present their findings at a Web intelligence conference in Toronto in August.